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China dispatches big air force fleet near Okinawa in show of force to Japan

China’s air force sent an unusually large fleet of fighter jets and bombers through the Miyako Strait near Japan’s Okinawa Island for exercises on Sunday, the second time it has headed to the Western Pacific this month.

Analysts said the sabre-rattling was meant as a strong message to Tokyo, after Japan’s new defence minister vowed to step up its military presence in the disputed South China Sea in joint training patrols with the United States.

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More than 40 H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighters and air tankers “systematically” flew over the strait to conduct early warning, sudden assault and aerial ­re­fuelling exercises in a test of

the force’s blue-water combat ­capabilities, a defence ministry statement quoted air force spokesman Shen Jinke as saying.

Bombers and fighters also carried out “routine” patrols in the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea ­on Sunday, Shen said. “Regular long-range drills in the Western Pacific and patrols over the East China Sea ADIZ were for the air force to safeguard China’s sovereignty, national security and peaceful development,” he said.

Japan’s defence ministry said it scrambled a fighter jet as eight Chinese planes believed to ­include two fighters flew over the strait in the morning in the first such large-scale passage through the area by Chinese military ­aircraft, Kyodo reported.

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There was no infringement of Japanese territorial air space, the ministry said.

The Miyako Strait between Okinawa and Miyako Island is one of the few international routes through which the Chinese military can get access to the Pacific Ocean. Chinese air force planes flew over the Miyako Strait for the first time in May last year.

The Chinese military has conducted routine patrols in the East China Sea ADIZ – which covers the disputed Diaoyu Islands – since it was extended over the area in 2013. It has also held regular long-range drills in the Western Pacific since March last year.

But military analysts said the scale of the latest long-range drill was “unprecedented”.

“This is very rare – the large number and variety of aircraft have not been seen before,” Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said, adding that previous drills to the Western Pacific usually ­involved fewer than 20 aircraft.

He said the drills were a ­response to Japan’s plans to join the US in South China Sea patrols.

During her visit to Washington last week, Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada threw “strong support” behind US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and vowed to ­increase engagement in the ­disputed waters.

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“It is a warning from Beijing to Japan: if you are coming to meddle in the South China Sea, then I’m going to flex my muscles at your doorstep,” Macau-based military analyst ­Antony Wong Dong said.

Wong said military exercises in the East China and South China seas were becoming increasingly regular, as the frequency and scale increased.

This is the air force’s second drill in the Western Pacific this month. On September 12, bombers, fighters and early warning and aerial refuelling aircraft flew into the area through the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines.

Shen said at the time that the force would organise regular exercises past the “first island chain”, referring to an area that includes Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.

“China is eager to show that it is capable of breaking the first island chain, which is a substantial threat to it both psychologically and in reality,” Wong said.